Written by Jacques Neriah
The recent protests in Syria and the subsequent crackdown by the regime have shown once more that the old concepts governing the assessment of the stability of regimes in the Middle East and North Africa have failed to forecast the demise of totalitarian rule in the Arab world.
The old adage used to say that because of the regime of fear governing those countries, and bearing in mind their mighty internal security apparatuses, most of the totalitarian Arab regimes would survive any popular uprising.
The “Arab Spring” proved that these old notions were no longer applicable to the reality of the twenty-first century, and that they have contributed to reaching false conclusions about the stability of the different regimes.
Even if Bashar Assad succeeds in surviving this political tsunami (as he did twice before since he took power in 2000), the Syrian regime will have to make concessions on human rights and freedom of expression that will limit the absolute powers he has enjoyed for the last ten years.
Should the Syrian regime fail to quell the protests, these could be the last days of Alawite Shiite rule in Syria. Syria under the Assads means rule by a minute minority of Alawites, representing barely 10 percent of the Syrian population. The Sunni majority has been kept out of power for more than 40 years and now it is claiming its share in the power game. One can draw a parallel with Iraq where Shiites have finally taken power from the Sunni minority (with the American assistance) and Bahrain where the majority Shiites are demanding to be partners in power-sharing with the ruling Sunni minority. Sectarian tremors and Shiite unrest have also been felt by the ruling Wahhabi family in Saudi Arabia. Even in Yemen, the northern Shiites are demanding to separate from the Sunni south.
In the event of the fall of the Assad regime, who could be the next ruler? For more than forty years the opposition has been harassed, persecuted, jailed, deported, and killed. It is very difficult today to identify a figure to rally around. If the regime should fall, it may be expected that the ruling Baath Party will not be allowed to continue as before (Tunisia and Egypt were quick to dismantle their one-party systems). Today, most of the opposition lives and operates outside Syria. The Muslim Brothers – who were very active in Syria until 1982, when Hafez Assad, the father, quelled their rebellion in Hamat at the cost of 17-40,000 killed – could be active again. Some Sunni politicians could be called on and asked to become part of a transitional government. Another possibility could be a (Sunni) military officer who would emerge to lead the country.
Historically, until the military coup staged by Hafez Assad in 1970, Syria had been a very volatile country where governments succeeded one another at an astounding pace. Military rulers staged military coups, to be replaced by fragile civilian governments. The stability that characterized Syria for the last four decades will be replaced by instability, which could radiates on its neighbors, and certainly on Israel.
Since 1974 (in the aftermath of the October 1973 war), Israel has enjoyed relative calm on its border with Syria. A change of regime, and certainly to a militant one, would not be to Israel’s advantage, especially if the new Syrian regime would try to “warm up” the border with Israel in order to divert public opinion from domestic problems. Moreover, Israel had been tempted in the past to adventure into peace negotiations with Syria. It is obvious that a regime change in Syria would postpone any such possible negotiations.
Iran also might be a loser from regime change in Syria. Assad is a strategic ally who pushed for a close relationship with Tehran. As such he also served a transit area for weapons, equipment, and manpower coming from Iran to Hizbullah in Lebanon and vice versa. The protesters in Daraa shouted: “no more Iran, no more Hizbullah,” which might signify that the new Syria will be reluctant to proceed in its policy towards Iran and Hizbullah. Such a development could create tension between the parties and also bring the different parties into a collision course, one favorable to Israel. As an offshoot of this policy, one can assess with a great degree of certainty that Syria will not relinquish its territorial claims in Lebanon (the Bekaa Valley and other areas along their common border). Bashar Assad agreed for the first time in history to a Lebanese ambassador in Damascus. His successors will have to reassess this strategic concession.
Will a change of regime also affect Syria’s harboring of Hamas and the headquarters of extreme Palestinian organizations? Initially, those organizations may be expected to keep a low profile until the new rulers are known and their policies analyzed. From the signals received during the protests, one could draw the conclusion that much will not change in this field.
What would become of the relations with neighboring, Shiite-ruled Iraq? Here again, one can only rely on the historical feud between the two countries.
As for the West and the U.S., Syria will still be a key player in the Middle East, with great resources of oil and gas to be exploited. It is in the national interest of the U.S. and the West to cultivate relations with the emerging Syria in order to provide a safe rear to Iraq and, most importantly, to contain Iran. Another focal issue will be the future of the relations between Syria and Turkey, with whom Bashar Assad had reached an understanding relating to an area claimed by Syria that is under Turkish rule (Iskenderun [Alexandretta]).
Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Deputy Head for Assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.